Fetal Pain and the Pro-Life Response

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Justin Taylor has published an interesting commentary on the recent JAMA fetal pain controversy that brings out the unintended dialectic which develops when pro-lifers deviate from the fundamental ethical problem with abortion. With his permission I’ve reproduced most of it below but you can find his original article here. (HT: JivinJ)

The Chicago Tribune explored the [question of bias] in an article entitled, “When Science, Politics Collide.” As it turns out, two of the five researchers have ties to the abortion industry. One of them runs an abortion clinic; another formerly served as an attorney for NARAL. Neither researcher disclosed this information to JAMA.

In my view, the potential conflict of interest should have been disclosed. Now just because one is an advocate does not mean one cannot produce research that is fair and true. However, readers deserve to know of connections that might affect research in a unduly biased way.

But I think pro-lifers will be making a mistake by putting all of their eggs in the Bias Basket. Undue bias is subjective and is difficult to prove or disprove. Pro-lifers shouldn't be giving the impression that advocacy automatically tarnishes research--for this argument cuts both ways, and would preclude research done by those who are advocates for the lives of the unborn.

As for the truth question: I am not competent to judge the research one way or another. As Christians, we should be open to the evidence, wherever it leads us.

But truth be told, I have a hard time getting emotionally invested in the issue of fetal pain. It seems clear to me that the goal behind the proposed legislation is not really about alleviating pain from fetuses. (After all, the fetuses get killed anyway!) The hope is that once a mother is informed about the reality of fetal pain by her physician, she will change her mind and pursue other options besides abortion.

I have mixed feelings about this approach. On the one hand, I embrace forms of pragmatism and incrementalism in the fight for life. If it's true that unborn babies feel pain at 20 weeks, and if informing a mother of this fact causes her not to murder her baby, then I support such legislation.

All the while, I believe we should be making passionate, persuasive arguments against a functional view of personhood (roughly, that a "person" is defined by his functions). Few are willing to take functional personhood to its logical conclusion like Peter Singer, who writes that "when we kill a newborn infant (particularly one that is severely handicapped) there is not a person whose life has begun (or will ever begin)."

Nonetheless, I wonder if some of our language as Christians can unwittingly reflect or reinforce a functional view of personhood. For example, once, when a friend held our infant daughter in his lap and observed her facial expressions, he exclaimed, "She almost looks like a little person!" (Er, she already is a person, and has been so since conception.) Or consider the ad campaigns by Pro-Life Across America ("The Billboard People"). They seek to dissuade people from abortion due to the functions of the fetus. ("Guess what? Our hearts were beating 24 days from conception!" "What! I could smile before I was born…12 weeks from conception.") We may succeed at convincing people not to have abortions on this basis, but we shouldn't be surprised if they then yawn at the idea of destroying embryos for research. Embryos simply don't play very well on billboards.

Granted, it's quite difficult to make metaphysical arguments on billboards or bumper stickers. (A problem I looked at here.) The key, I would suggest, is to steer every conversation and debate toward the crux of the matter: the nature of what is being aborted. My friend Scott Klusendorf--widely considered to be among the best pro-life debaters in the country--has done a superb job of this. See, for example, his technique of “Trotting Out the Toddler.”

So back to the two main issues: (1) Is the research correct? I don't know. (2) Are the researchers unduly biased? Again, I don't know. What I do know is this: the unborn baby is a human person, created in God's image, and we must do all that we can to persuade our death-obsessed culture that it is wrong to murder the most defenseless among us.

As a brief follow-up, I note that the use of pain or the developmental status of an unborn baby as the basis for an ethical argument opposing abortion is prone to difficulty because, as Justin articulates, it can be used to demean the personhood of the child. It may seem counter intuitive, but the argument against abortion is ultimately weakened by diluting the God given sanctity of human life with subjectively defined instrumental, functional or utilitarian characteristics that some suppose add value and dignity to the person.

Such an argument can be later turned around and used by pro-abortion opportunists to assert the lack of pain or certain developmental characteristics is justification for abortion (or embryonic stem cell research).

I’m not writing in opposition to the incremental approaches mentioned by Justin, nor backing down from criticism of the JAMA article. I simply agree with Justin that the argument must ultimately be brought back to its metaphysical basis.

Updates: Brian from Worldview Warrior has more.

1 Comment

Looks like Justin and I have both learned a thing or two from Scott Klusendorf...

http://worldviewwarrior.com/blog/index.php/2005/08/25/pain_of_the_fetus_during_an_abortion

We must get back to the fundamental question:

What is the unborn?




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